Wednesday 27 September 2023

Six Times I Felt Proud This Week

I see you. I see your strength and courage, your hesitations and fears. I see the way you love others, and your struggle to love yourself. I see how hard you work to grow, and your dedication to heal. (Scott Stabile)

A couple of years ago in I’m Proud of You: Four Words That Mean So Much I talked about feeling proud of other people and ourselves. Picking up on that theme, I’d like to share six times I’ve felt proud in the past week.

1. Completing my blog post for World Mental Health Day

World Mental Health Day falls each year on October 10 and I’m happy (and proud!) to say I finished my blog post early this year. That was partly because I’d been invited to write something for WMHD for the disability network at work (shout out to Debbie for inviting me to contribute!) and I needed to submit in plenty of time. A slightly modified version will go up here on our blog too, so getting it finished this week means I’m ahead of the game here too. No spoilers, but the piece is slightly different from articles I’ve written for WMHD and other awareness days and events in the past, in that I take a broader look at mental health than usual. It may need a few edits before it goes up but Debbie loved it and that makes me proud too, because I value her opinion very highly.

2. Handling things at work

My official job title is associate I.T. service manager but I find it hard to associate (pun intended) those words with what I do. Those with experience of the UK civil service will recognise my grade of Higher Executive Officer (HEO), but my role and responsibilities bear little relation to those of an HEO in other areas of the organisation. I sometimes feel in limbo, just passing the time until I retire in a few years. This week, though, I had some good days where I felt fully engaged in the work and found myself moving seamlessly between various tasks, meetings, requests, and challenges, discharging each of them in turn to the best of my ability. I’m proud of myself for that.

3. My friend Louise

I’m immensely proud of my friend Louise for how she handled being parted from her phone for almost a week! I’m proud too of how well we worked together, exploring options and then tracking her phone as it made its way back to her. It was a lot of fun and I think contributed to making an adventure out of what could easily have been a really stressful and frustrating experience for her. Heck, I was stressed on her behalf! There’s definitely a lesson there for me, to allow things to be how they are and explore ways forward, rather than getting too caught up in the drama.

4. Making a start in the garden

I’m not much of a gardener, and over the past year or so the back garden in particular has become somewhat overgrown. Not a cosy, hedgehog-friendly, BBC Autumn Watch kind of overgrown, although we have had little spiky visitors in the past. More Little Shop of Horrors meets Day of the Triffids. The ivy in particular has been threatening to make a bid for freedom. In doing so, it’s encroached on the pavement and passageway beyond the garden fence.

Finally, this week, I made a start at cutting it back and returning things to some sort of order. It was a chore, and there’s a lot more work to do out there, but I found myself enjoying it. It brought back memories of working out there day after day through the spring and summer of 2020. With the country under lockdown there was little else to do besides working from home, twice weekly trips to the supermarket, and local walks for exercise. Working in the garden gave me a focus I found really helpful. I’d forgotten how that felt.

5. Prioritising myself

I’ve kept in touch with people this week, but I’ve also paid attention to my needs and priorities. That’s included blocking out off-screen time of an evening, as well as time and space for writing and other things. I’ve been gentle with myself when I’ve felt tired or lacked motivation, and pressed on with things when the energy and opportunity was there. I don’t always do that and I’m proud of myself for doing so.

6. My friends

I mentioned Louise earlier, but at different times and for different reasons this week I’ve had cause to feel proud of several of my friends, and to tell them so. I won’t mention names because not all might appreciate the call-out, but you’ll know who you are if you read this. “I’m proud of you” can come across as insincere, an easy dismissal of the actual challenges someone has faced or is facing. That’s something I described in the blog piece I mentioned earlier. I hope the people I’m thinking about were and are able to accept my expressions of pride in the spirit in which they’re offered. I’m reminded of the RØRY song Small Victories:

Some people climbed Mount Everest today, made history
While I was still asleep
At least I made my bed today
Small victories, mhm

Those lyrics resonate for me because as an armchair (actually, rocking chair) adventurer I watch a lot of mountaineering videos and documentaries. That kind of achievement is beyond me on every level. But big or small (and, really, who is to judge the scale of such things?) the things I do, the things my friends do, the things you do are worthy of acknowledgement and celebration.

Be proud of yourself today. I am.


Photo by Daniel McCullough at Unsplash.


Wednesday 20 September 2023

The Guest at Your Table: A Jumbo Selection of My Writing on Other People's Blogs

Fran and I are immensely grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to share our story and message to a wider audience. In this post I’ve brought together a selection of articles hosted on other people’s blogs and websites. Check out our news and appearances page for more, including our books, reviews, interviews, and podcast appearances.

I’m always open to invitations so if you have a blog or project and would like me to contribute please get in touch. Likewise, we love having guest bloggers here at Gum on My Shoe. Check our contact page for submission guidelines.

Hosted by bp Magazine

Hosted by I’m NOT Disordered

Hosted by Julie A. Fast

Hosted by Stigma Fighters

Hosted Elsewhere


Image by David Clode at Unsplash


Wednesday 13 September 2023

Erich Brenn Would Be Proud: How I Keep My Plates Spinning (Mostly)

As regular readers will know, I recently bought a new pair of glasses. I couldn’t be happier but there were a few issues at first. New glasses can lead to headaches until your eyes adjust. The frames sit differently on my face too and I had some pain across the bridge of my nose as they settled into place. They’re fine now but for the first week or two I occasionally reverted to wearing my old glasses for a few hours. Doing so was a trade-off between seeing clearly, and seeing less clearly but with less discomfort.

It got me thinking about how life is often a compromise between caring for some aspects of our health and wellbeing at the expense of others. The trick is not to ignore any one aspect for so long so that it becomes critical. It’s an ongoing challenge to keep all my plates spinning, to borrow an analogy from my friend Maya. If you’re unfamiliar with the reference, check out this video of plate spinning maestro Erich Brenn. My plates are many and varied but I can group them into three categories: physical, mental, and emotional.


I usually get between six and seven hours sleep a night. This works well enough but leaves me running a slight sleep deficit. I’ve a pretty high tolerance to physical tiredness, but every now and again it catches up with me. My wake up time is dictated by my work schedule, and I hate going to bed early because it always feels like I’m short-changing myself on the day! If I’m really tired I might retire early for a few nights, but that’s about it.

I’m talking here about the kind of physical tiredness that’s refreshed by resting and sleep. Fran and a number of my other friends live with health conditions that often leave them extremely fatigued and low-to-empty in terms of physical and mental energy. For them, rest isn’t a luxury or something that can be indefinitely deferred. It’s an essential part of how they manage their symptoms. That might involve spending hours if not days in bed or on the couch, or withdrawing from all but absolutely essential activities until things improve.

Fran and I sometimes find ourselves in need of rest at the same time, and take the opportunity to share some shut-eye time together on our regular video calls. I wrote about the first time this happened in a blog post about how sharing quiet moments can deepen your friendship. We still do this when we’re tired and in need of a little time out. I find it really helpful. It’s the only time I give myself permission to doze or even close my eyes during the day.


I’m better at paying attention to my mental health. I tend to notice when I’m getting mentally tired, stressed, or overwhelmed and take steps to reset and recoup my energy and focus. Writing helps, whether it’s blogging or writing my personal journal. That might seem counterintuitive, but working on my latest blog post or exploring things in my journal brings my focus inwards and counters any sense of overwhelm I might be feeling.

Distraction is another useful strategy. Fran immerses herself in Netflix shows when she needs to unwind or escape intrusive or unhealthy thoughts. Other friends stream music and shows in a similar way, or use computer games as a distraction. I’m not into gaming myself, although I’ve found simple colour or shape sorting games helpful in the past. More commonly, I unwind with YouTube videos on topics such as astronomy and physics, mathematics, historical/military documentaries, and air crash investigations. Anything that bears little direct relation to what’s going on in my life at the time.


It’s not a good idea to ignore my physical wellbeing as much as I do but I have few physical health issues and find those plates stay up there even when they’re wobbling quite a bit. Mentally, I recover fairly quickly. As long as I stay vigilant to any wobbles, I can give my mental plates a quick nudge now and again and they’ll keep spinning. It’s my emotional crockery that gives me the most concern. That might some as a surprise to some. I remember being told “you never get emotional” which is so far from the truth it would be funny if it wasn’t tragic. My emotional plates and bowls — indeed the entire vintage seventy-two piece bone china dinner service — have often been on the point of crashing spectacularly to the floor. I haven’t always got to them in time.

My key coping strategies are documented in my Wellness And Recovery Action Plan. A WRAP can cover any situations in which we find ourselves struggling or becoming unwell. Mine focuses on my emotional wellbeing because that’s what I struggle with the most. My coping strategies include talking things over with people I trust (but not over-processing); pulling back to assess what’s actually happening; temporarily withdrawing from connections and social media; listing allowed and not allowed behaviour; focusing on writing, blogging, and reading; and reminding myself how my actions are impacting others. Listening to music can be helpful but that depends on the circumstances. Music can soothe, reassure, and distract, but it can also bring memories and emotions to the surface I may not ready to deal with at the time.

Too Many Plates

I’ve focused on how I keep my plates spinning, but sometimes there’s just too much crockery up there! It’s more graceful to catch a few pieces before they fall and set them safely aside, but it’s okay if one or more end up on the floor. Maybe we took on too many tasks at once, either because we overestimated our capabilities or because we were given little opportunity to say no. Maybe we tried to handle just a little too much drama, our own or other people’s. Maybe life simply threw more at us than we could ever hope to keep going at the same time.

It can seem like the end of the world when a plate drops, but it’s rarely as desperate as it appears. Unless everything has utterly collapsed — in which case extreme self-care is what we need before we can ever think of setting up again for another go — there are still plates up there we can attend to. It may even prove easier to attend to those that remain. As for the broken items, there may still be something there worth recovering. An unattended friendship may feel like it’s over, but the break might be repaired and the connection strengthen as a result. That’s happened to me more than once. A health condition might have returned or emerged that appears awful but leads to it being properly diagnosed or treated more effectively. A personal or family crisis or loss might seem impossible to survive, yet we move through it.

The Japanese word kintsugi roughly translates as “joining with gold” and is an ancient repair technique using lacquer dusted with powdered gold to repair broken ceramic vessels. It’s often taken as a reminder that mistakes and damage are a necessary part of life. With care and loving attention they can often be repaired and even celebrated as important stages in our journey. Not all damage can be repaired, of course. Some hurts are too deep and their effects too devastating to be easily fixed or transformed into something valuable and life-affirming. Sometimes all we can do is look at the broken crockery at our feet and hope there’s someone to help us clean up the mess.

Over to You

In this article I’ve shared some of the ways I keep my plates spinning, recognising that there are times it’s neither possible nor healthy to have so many things up there at the same time. We can pay attention to this thing or that thing up to a point but sometimes it’s all too much and we need to set everything down and rest.

One way or another, most of this comes down to self-care. I’ve collected a number of articles on self-care which I find helpful. These cover practical strategies, suggestions for making a difference to your day, kindness and gratitude, music and playlists, getting out and about, and recognising that we don’t have to do everything on our own.

What techniques and strategies do you use when you find your plates wobbling? Do you recognise when you have too much going on and take steps to intervene, or do you tend to press on until everything crashes around you? Fran and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Matthew Henry at Burst.


Saturday 9 September 2023

Free Books for World Suicide Prevention Day

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day 2023 Fran and I are offering our book HIGH TIDE LOW TIDE for FREE on Kindle for five days between Sunday September 10 and Thursday September 14, inclusive. Once the offer is over the prices will return to normal.

In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we share what we’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one.” With no-nonsense advice from the caring friend’s point of view, original approaches, and practical tips, our book is illustrated with real-life conversations and examples.

Buy it here.

World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action.

Creating Hope Through Action serves as a powerful call to action and reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and that through our actions we can encourage hope and strengthen prevention.

This is a topic very close to our hearts and never far from our thoughts. Suicidal thinking has been part of my friendship with Fran since we met twelve years ago, and we devote one chapter of our book to dealing with how to support a friend who is feeling suicidal.

For more information check out the following links.


Wednesday 6 September 2023

Breaking the Silence: Talking About Suicide to Create Hope

Suicidal ideation has less power when it is verbalised. — Fran Houston

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day our book High Tide Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder will be free on Kindle between September 10–14, 2023.

Established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) is observed each year on September 10. The theme for WSPD 2021–2023 is Creating Hope Through Action. According to the World Health Organisation, this “serves as a powerful call to action and reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and that through our actions we can encourage hope and strengthen prevention. By creating hope through action, we can signal to people experiencing suicidal thoughts that there is hope and that we care and want to support them. It also suggests that our actions, no matter how big or small, may provide hope to those who are struggling.”

That sounds great, but what can we possibly do as individuals to help someone thinking about ending their life? What difference can we make? In this post I’m going to focus on one way we can all contribute to keeping each other safe, which is by having open conversations about suicide and suicidal thinking.

The Power of Conversation in Suicide Prevention

According to suicide prevention charity Grassroots, approximately 120 people die by suicide every week in the UK. One in five people in the UK have suicidal thoughts and one in twenty will attempt suicide. Statistics such as these can be hard to grasp, but there will be people in your life — your friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues — with direct experience of suicidal thinking. You might not know who or how many, and it’s not a comfortable realisation, but it’s the simple truth. Many of my friends have had, or still have, thoughts of suicide. Some have made attempts to end their life. Others have not. I know this because it’s not a taboo subject for us and comes up in conversation whenever it needs to.

Whether it’s talking someone out of a dangerous situation, helping to counter the stigma of suicidality, or holding space for a friend or loved one to share what they’re going through, talking matters. Listening matters even more. Conversations can literally be the difference between despair and hope, between death and life. Fran expresses this well in the epilogue to our book.

It’s true when I say I would be dead if Marty hadn’t come along. So much hurt, so much pain, so much rejection, it made no sense to stay. [...] Friends like Marty who are willing to be with me in the darkness are the ones who give me light. Yes there are medications. Yes there is therapy. Yes there is personal responsibility. But caring friendship is the best medicine of all. Then life begins to have purpose.

She ends with a call to action that captures the essence of WSPD for me. “Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.”

Overcoming the Fear of Discussing Suicide

There are many reasons someone might not want to talk about their mental health but there are also reasons we may hesitate to open a conversation with someone who’s struggling or feeling suicidal. The most obvious of these is fear. It’s scary to hear someone we care about tell us they have thoughts of hurting themself or putting their life at risk. Once someone has shared that with us — and doing so represents a huge leap of trust on their behalf — there’s no way to unhear it. There’s no shame in admitting we feel afraid to go there. It’s an important step towards overcoming those fears, or setting them aside for the moment, and offering support to those we care about.

On the other hand, don’t worry if you don’t feel scared about discussing these things. In the early days of our friendship Fran was intensely manic and more or less constantly suicidal. Many people, including some who had known her a long time, were fearful and worried about her behaviour. I didn’t feel that way, but was unsure whether my ability to remain calm meant I was ill-equipped to support her effectively. I came to realise that my ability to remain calm made me the person she needed. As I wrote at the time, “[p]ositive, supportive and vigilant care is far healthier for Fran than any amount of fear-based worrying.”

Another reason we might hold back is the thought of being responsible for the person’s safety. I’ll cover suicide awareness and prevention training in the next section, but something I’ve learned from Fran and others is that not every conversation about suicide is a crisis situation. I think this fact is often overlooked. Holding space for someone to share their thoughts and feelings when they’re not actively suicidal is profoundly protective, not least because it demonstrates you’re someone they can feel safe with. We need to normalise talking about suicide because it’s such a common experience, and yet is so often stigmatised as dangerous and taboo, or solely the responsibility of professionals.

Of course, sometimes the person is actively suicidal and we need to be prepared for that possibility. One of the first things you’re taught in any suicide awareness or prevention training is that asking someone directly if they’re thinking of suicide won’t put the idea into their head or push them to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have done. If they say yes, ask if they’re planning to take action. If so, treat it seriously and be prepared to involve appropriate professional services if necessary. I’ve asked these questions on various occasions. Most times, the person wasn’t in immediate danger, and we’ve talked about what was going on for them and what steps they might take to stay safe. I’ve also called an ambulance for a friend who told me they’d taken an overdose and needed immediate medical assistance.

Being friends with someone who talks about wanting to die can be stressful, so remember to pay as close attention to your well-being as to theirs. Check out our article How to Take Care of Yourself When Your Friend is Suicidal for suggestions and tips.

Promoting Understanding and Empathy

As well as having private conversations, we can promote wider understanding and empathy in other ways. A good place to start is to be aware of the words we use when discussing suicide. The most obvious is to stop saying “committed suicide” and to challenge the term wherever we encounter it. A social media post by NAMI Bucks County PA puts the case powerfully.

People can die from the unbearable weight of life, people can die from broken hearts, and people can die from not understanding how to navigate a complicated mental health system. People do not, however, commit suicide. Suicide is not a crime. People die by suicide. Let’s update our language and fight to Improve our mental health system. Mental health support and improved access to better treatment IS suicide prevention.

For more on this check out Language Matters by the Public Health Agency of Canada and CNN’s article The words to say — and not to say — about suicide.

Reading or listening to other people’s experiences is another powerful route to understanding. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson writes with great honestly about her lived experience including suicidality and self-harm at I’m NOT Disordered. Kevin Hines is an American suicide prevention speaker and author who attempted to take his life in 2000 by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. You can read his story on his website which links to a great deal of inspiring and educational content. Jonny Benjamin’s book The Stranger on the Bridge tells the story of finding himself on Waterloo Bridge in London in 2008 and his search to find the passing stranger who talked him down to safety. I met Jonny in 2019 at an event he attended with other speakers. You can read my account of the event in The Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support.

There are also a number of excellent online courses on suicide awareness and prevention, many of which are free to take.

The single most important thing I’ve learned about suicidality is that it’s not the same for everyone and can take many forms. In our book we describe several ways suicidal thinking manifests for Fran. These include relentless thinking, situational and stress-induced thinking, hopelessness and despair, and suicide by proxy. All are serious, but they’re amenable to different forms of intervention. A change in medication dramatically decreased the frequency and impact of her relentless thoughts but had less impact on the other forms.

This isn’t unique to Fran. I’ve learned from other friends that coping strategies which counter some thoughts of suicidality and self-harm are ineffective in other situations. It’s not that the person isn’t trying hard enough to stay safe. The techniques available to them are simply not strong enough to counter the impulse to put their health, or their life, in danger. I can never truly understand what it’s like to be in such a situation but talking about it helps me appreciate that suicidality is never as black-and-white as it’s often portrayed.

Insight can be found in unexpected places. I recently came across a short video by Taylor Swift in which she talked about her song “This Is Me Trying.”

I’ve been thinking about people who, if they’re either suffering through mental illness, or they’re suffering through addiction, or they have an everyday struggle, no one pats them on the back every day but every day they are actively fighting something. But there are so many days that nobody gives them credit for that. And so how often must somebody who’s in that sort of internal struggle wanna say to everyone in the room “You have no idea how close I am to going back to a dark place.”

Keep your eyes and ears open when you’re online or talking with the people around you. Opportunities to grow, to learn, and to promote greater understanding are everywhere.

Navigating Sensitive Discussions with Empathy

Talking about suicide might be healthy and helpful, but what about the conversations themselves? What are they like? Our book High Tide, Low Tide contains many examples of our actual conversations, including times when Fran was suicidal. I’ve also written about this previously in What Does Having a Conversation about Mental Health Look Like? For now I’ll focus on two of the most important skills: not interrupting and asking questions.

Listening without interrupting is something I find particularly difficult, as Fran and other friends of mine can attest. The impulse to interrupt their story with suggestions and advice can be almost overwhelming. Interruptions are rarely appreciated, however. They can come across as me not paying attention, dismissing their concerns, or intervening with well-meaning but not necessarily helpful suggestions. Resist the temptation to say “I understand” unless you truly do have relevant lived experience. I’ve never had thoughts of suicide or self-harm, and although I’ve talked with many people who do, I’d never presume to know what it’s like to be in such a situation.

Asking questions might seem contradictory when I’ve just stressed not interrupting the person who’s talking, but asking the right questions at the right time in the right way is an important skill. The following passage from Sometimes We Need to Ask the Questions relates specifically to conversations about suicide and suicidal thinking.

Asking questions is not a passive activity. A question invites a response, and you may not get back what you anticipated or are comfortable with. [...] If your friend appears to be struggling, be prepared to ask the important questions.

Are you feeling suicidal, or thinking of doing something to harm yourself?

Do you feel you are safe right now?

Do we need to think about how to help you stay safe?

Also ask how your friend would like you to proceed if you become concerned for their safety. Respect their wishes and opinions, but be clear that you will involve other people or support services if necessary. That way you both know where you stand.

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about their recent experiences with mental health services. They mentioned that sometimes the crisis team was helpful and sometimes not. I was interested to know what advice or suggestions had helped. My question led to a valuable conversation about what my friend finds protective and what doesn’t work for them. I’ve had similar discussions with other friends. Such conversations increase my awareness of what my friends are going through. More importantly, they foster trust and normalise talking about things they live with on an ongoing basis.

As I wrote in Eight Things I’ve Learned about Suicidality and Self-Harm if you’ve never been in so dark a place, think about it this way. If there was something that was always or often in your mind, a part of your lived experience, and there was no one you could mention it to or talk to about it, how alone would you feel?

Further Reading and Resources

For more information and resources relating to World Suicide Prevention Day, suicide awareness, and suicide prevention, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention, the World Health Organisation, Samaritans, and Grassroots Suicide Prevention.

We’ve shared a number of relevant articles over the years, including our curated list of posts for mental health awareness days and events, and a selection of articles for World Suicide Prevention Day.

Our resources page has links to international suicide crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers a range of help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else.


Photo by Etienne Boulanger at Unsplash.